If you haven’t read Andrew O’Hehir’s insightful commentary on the sudden marketplace crash of independent film, you should. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Since I doubt you read the entire article since you’re reading our website while playing Rock Band, listening to The Cool Kids and pretending to do homework for your remedial Summer classes, I’ll do as decent a recap as possible considering the depth of his analysis:
Despite the fad-like popularity of indie films looming over the entire industry, threatening to forever destroy corporate-behemoths in a flurry of democratic, fan-based economic coups d’etat – the reality of independent film is much bleaker. Lawsuits, financial woes and studio division closings loom over the future of the industry. The amount of movies in theaters can’t be supported by the marketplace, and indies will be hit as hard as anyone. New media is changing the face of the game, and a world that demands one or two major hits to support hundreds of art house ghosts is in trouble.
O’Hehir is right about a lot of things. Actually, he’s pretty much right about everything, but I’d like to extrapolate his logic to see an even bigger picture. Consider it my brand of Film Futurism:
We’re going to see fewer movies released in fewer theaters, yes. But we’ll also see more IMAX theaters being built, more movies being shot in 3D and a growing number in 4D. Hollywood will still be making bad movies that cost nothing and make millions, but they will continue to release incredible pieces of art that audiences will drive to box offices for despite the influx of home-theaters being built around gigantic HD monitors and cheaper surround-sound speakers.
The independent film world will face a great crisis from a simple, yet confounding, paradox of human life: you cannot sell a movie if you already have an audience.
The real problem with new media that no one seems to be detecting yet is the democratic process itself. For all the complaining some do about Hollywood spoon-feeding us crap, democracy as a business model is far worse. Leaving aside the nightmare of actually finding a decent independent movie in the sea of amateur waste floating on social networking sites, consider for a moment that you’re an independent filmmaker with some real chops. Let’s also imagine that you’re stuck, like so many others, and have no possible route to selling your film after studios and distributors stop buying unknowns at festivals.
According to the Youtube model, you throw your masterpiece up there to the gaping maw of the public. If buzz never catches on, if there’s no tipping point, you’re in trouble. But it’s far worse if you actually do get a million viewers in one week. Because, congratulations, your film isn’t marketable anymore. While creating a massive audience for a film, new media simultaneously reduces the sales potential of a movie.
How many of those million will head to the theaters to see a movie on the big screen that they’ve already seen? How many who felt compelled to write “Gr8 job, dood!!” on your profile page will still feel compelled to spend money for the mega-plex release a year later?
Even if the film is good enough to drive some to see it again, a significant percentage of viewers will stay at home browsing for their next free entertainment fix. Thus, having the most popular film up on Youtube also ensures its death. Plus, if a payment structure isn’t created, no one will want to spend $20,000 on a movie that’s given away for free – effectively killing the chances of anything good cropping up anway. Also plus, entire genres like Thrillers, Mysteries and other single-viewing films will have no chance of breaking away from the computer monitor and onto the big screen. Clearly, letting the people decide what’s good is not good. At least for movie makers.
If the traditional method of delivering independent films to a larger audience fails, and new media can’t take its place, a new method will have to be developed.
What I propose is a middle ground. An elitist democracy. I envision a system of websites that will allow independent filmmakers to show off their wares while industry insiders’ assistants troll the internets for the next big thing. If buzz is created, it’s created between those that have the power to pump the lifeblood of distribution funds into a picture, and not a mass-market nail in the reel canister to the film’s marketability.
In this, I completely agree with O’Hehir that we still need gate keepers. For the early adoption crowd and people who listened to Animal Collective before they were hip, digging through the trenches to find talent is a great past time. But for a giant majority, we still want our great art vetted.
Which brings me to my final large point about the shifting tide of the industry: now, more than ever, we’re going to need film critics. Am I selfishly securing my job for the future? Yes. But It’s justified. Since audiences can’t waste ten dollars to figure out if they’ll like the next unknown flick – and since there will continue to be a growing number of unknown flicks saturating our eyes and ears – critics will play a (ahem) critical role in that vetting process. In a sense, having the Hollywood decision makers as a first line of defense and the critics as a second is how it’s always been. We’re just going to have a lot more to sift through.
I have no doubt that independent filmmaking will survive. Movies have always been the renegade’s art form, and the world is going to see a lot more renegades in the coming years. For whatever reason, audiences have been increasingly adventurous when approaching indie films, and whether that popularity wanes again like it almost always does, indie flicks will still be out there waiting to be discovered. How we discover them and how they break through is going to change, and the studios had better be more prepared than they seem to be.
I don’t mean to sound apocalyptic. I imagine that this phenomenon will pass by without the typical movie-goer even taking notice. The price of popcorn is much more pressing than the face of independent distribution switching gears to survive. But if the studios can’t regulate, we’ll all notice a difference when movies like No Country for Old Men have no chance at an Oscar but Beverly Hills Chihuahua suddenly wins Best Picture. I doubt that Hollywood would let that happen, but if it does, I’ll be hiding out in my home-theater until the smoke clears.
Editor’s Note: If you have time, take a look at this very interesting response from Kent Nichols, one of the creators of AskaNinja. He definitely has a point about new media.